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Table Talk: An interview with Andrew Dennis, Farmer of the Year 2009

Woodlands Farm sounds about as idyllic a country retreat as you could find - a haven for children, older members of the community, poets, artists, rare-breed cows and a new biodynamic farming pilot project, which Farmer of the Year 2009, Andrew Dennis hopes will help produce better crops. We caught up with Andrew to find out more.

The farm's been in the family since 1870… I'm fourth generation and have been at the helm for about 15 years. Farming wasn't something that I necessarily wanted to do, but I was given the chance and felt that, unless I tried it, I would never know and would always regret not having done so.

I had to make changes in order to make it work for me… I wouldn't have been able to farm in the previous way because it didn't interest me. I'm a firm believer that the belief sustains the effort and unless you believe in something, then it's unlikely to be very successful.

Winning 2009 Farmer of the Year was… a great surprise and a tribute to the wonderful team here at Woodlands. I was rung up by the BBC Radio 4 chap who said, did you know you've been nominated - of course I didn't - and could the judges come and visit you next week.

Alex James and Chris Haskins were the judges… Chris used to be chairman at Northern Foods and was described as Tony Blair's ‘agriculture tsar.' It was fascinating to meet them both as I felt they were an interesting combination - you have the brilliant commercial brain of Chis Haskins, counter-balanced with the more idealistic brain of Alex James. It was good. I enjoyed it.

Before the box scheme… we'd been primary producers and had been selling produce to other wholesalers or supermarkets. You didn't have any connection with your customer, and that for me wasn't satisfying. I wanted to forge closer links with the local community and be in a position where I could tell a story of the land.

A lot of what I do is motivated by… a wish to not only produce, or to reconnect, but to preserve and enhance what we've already got. If I can re-connect with people and help them to develop an affection for the land, then more of it will be preserved for the future. I think our well-being rests on the health of the land.

One of the most challenging things is… All this grayness! For the first time ever I find the weather is getting to me. I'm looking out over a misty field at the moment and, of course, the sky is grey.

We're working with an illustrator… We distribute Rosie Redzia's drawings through our vegetable boxes. I love projects like this because they encourage people to look at the land in a different way. They begin to question the point of the landscape and the beauty of it, and I think through that process, they re-evaluate it.

I'm fond of all the poets we've worked with… Clare Best had a residency here. On 7th March, she's launching a collection of poems, which were written at Woodlands. The collection is called Treasure Ground and is published by HappenStance, which is a very prestigious publishing house, so I'm thrilled about that.

There's so much we can learn from the older people… they've got innate wisdom and knowledge of old traditional ways. There's a whole resource of wisdom, which isn't being tapped. I'm hoping that by developing meaningful relationships with the older community, some of that wisdom can be conveyed to the younger generation.

We somehow need to communicate the need to eat well… and be prepared to pay a little bit extra in order to do that. It's to do with changing perceptions about food and what it means to really eat well. That's the challenge.

Biodynamic farming is an interesting approach… it not only encompasses the farm as a living organism, but the wider environment as well. I have seen some wonderful biodynamic farms and they do seem to have this special quality, which is something I'd like to replicate here.

There's been a huge change in recent years… I think that city folk are really interested in the countryside. People want to understand more and reconnect with it, which is really exciting. I think the whole famers' market concept has helped revitalise that link actually, which is very positive.

My favourite website is... I think the Soil Association has a good website and I like the BDAA website, which is the Biodynamic Agricultural Association. I mean they're information sites, but I think they're interesting - and of course The Good Web Guide!

TREASURE GROUND, by Clare Best

On Sunday March 7th 2010, Treasure Ground will be launched at Woodlands with a celebration walk at 2pm (optional) and readings by the poet at 3.30pm, followed by tea. Admission is free. Treasure Ground is available from Woodlands Farm, or from www.happenstancepress.com, price £4.00

Visit www.woodlandsfarm.co.uk

Emily Jenkinson

26 February

2013